From plus-one to NCAA split, major change on college football horizon
NEW YORK -- Maybe we won't need to cross our fingers and toes. The "plus-one" -- a four-team college football playoff -- is under serious consideration in conferences that previously stood firm against any idea of a bracketed tournament. How serious?
"I happen to agree with my conference colleagues about the plus-one game," Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday. "I think it's inevitable at this point."
Speaking at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum, several influential athletic directors made a few things clear.
• The plus-one is coming.
• The way we view the bowl hierarchy likely will change.
• The NCAA's approval of up to a $2,000-per-athlete stipend to offset the actual cost of attending a university is the first major step toward a separation of Division I's haves and have-nots, and it could be the first step toward a break from the NCAA by the wealthiest schools.
None of the athletic directors who spoke Wednesday voiced support for a full-fledged, NFL-style playoff, but they did acknowledge the possibility of a change that would allow four teams to compete for the national title at the end of the season. "I was vehemently against it initially," UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said, "but I'm a little more open to the discussion as it relates to a plus-one." The fact that two athletic directors in the Pac-12 -- a league long known for its resistance to a playoff -- would concede the possibility of a change is a major step. Monday, Big 12 athletic directors voted to throw their support behind the plus-one. The SEC and ACC supported a four-team playoff in 2008, but they were rebuffed by the other conferences.
That isn't the only major change in the works. The idea of BCS bowls may change as well. For the past few weeks, conference and school officials have hinted at the idea of taking away automatic qualifying bids to BCS bowls. Now, some schools would like to see the special designation for certain bowls taken away unless the system for placing teams into those bowls is based on achievement and not the Old Boy Network that currently guides the decision-making process. The Sugar Bowl's decision to match BCS No. 11 Virginia Tech against BCS No. 13 Michigan has rankled many in the sport. In choosing the Hokies and Wolverines, the bowl bypassed higher-ranked, eligible teams from Boise State, Kansas State and Baylor.
Asked who was to blame for the Sugar bypassing Kansas State, Wildcats athletic director John Currie said he must start by looking in the mirror. "I let us down," he said. " Because I didn't know the people well enough to do whatever we were supposed to do. But if that's what we're going to be about, who had a relationship 40 years ago, I don't think that's the thing to stand up and tell student-athletes. 'Hey, you get to do this or this because of somebody else's relationship.'"
Currie then said something that should strike fear into the hearts of overpaid, underworked bowl directors everywhere, because while Currie may be the jilted, angry one now, he isn't the only administrator who feels this way. "College football doesn't need the bowls like it once did to build the brand of college football," Currie said. In other words, the schools and conferences can stage exhibition games on their own at a far lower cost, increasing their profits and cutting the bowls out of the equation entirely.
Currie said he still appreciates the bowl experience, and he is ecstatic that his team will play in the Cotton Bowl, but he would like to see a change in the way the bowls are identified. At the moment, the Fiesta, Orange, Rose and Sugar bowls occupy a more prestigious position than the others. If that is to remain the case, he said, then the teams that play in those bowls should be the ones who had the best seasons. "We don't necessarily need to have labels that establish that this group of games is better than all the other games," Currie said, "unless we're going to objectively put the people into the game."
Meanwhile, the ADs did not softpedal their views on a potential schism in the NCAA between the haves and the have-nots. The cost-of-attendance stipend may have started the schools down that path, Washington athletic director Scott Woodward said. "It's a big incremental step."
This should sound familiar to those who read this space often. I was kidding in February 2010 when I wrote
"There's more discussion of it today than there ever has been before," Bowlsby said. "I think it's discussed from less a pie-in-the-sky perspective than it may have been in the past and more from a practical level. Increasingly, our national organizations -- and, to some extent, our conference organizations -- are not nimble enough to deal with the issues in college athletics right now.
"To the extent that a smaller organization that was more homogenous would be easier to govern, I think that's the perspective from which people are now looking at this. Is it really realistic to try and paint 300 of us in Division I with a common brush."
Georgia State athletic director Cheryl Levick spoke for hundreds of less wealthy schools when she explained how the stipend only deepens the divide. Levick wasn't crying poor or complaining; she simply outlined the reality of the situation.
"We figured out that [paying $2,000 stipends] is $250,000 for us [annually]," she said. "That's a chunk of change for us and our particular budget. We want to be competitive. We think, from a recruiting standpoint, we can compete against some top schools to get athletes. Maybe not in football, because we're FCS, but in some other sports. So, strategically, what do we do? Because you bet the parents are going to ask, 'Are you going to be able to cover that?' For us, that's a lot of money."
Less wealthy schools will have to decide whether they want to keep spending that money or whether they want to drop back to a more realistic level. "We may evolve to [a separation]," Currie said. "But perhaps it will be because some choose not to participate anymore at this particular financial model or this particular level."
Or it could be a situation more similar to my LOOT proposal, where the schools break away and form their own governing body only for one or two revenue-generating sports. "I think it's crazy that we try and govern golf and football by the same set of rules. ... I don't know that we have been all that successful creating the kind of competitive equity that we think we're creating," Bowlsby said. "We aren't all created equal. We need to come face-to-face with that reality, and there are more discussions along those lines all the time."
As schools come face-to-face with various realities, only one thing is certain. Major change is on the horizon.